The image above is mostly real. The setting sun and martian landscape were really taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit on its 489th martian day. What is not real in this image is that little rover looking off into the distance.
Spirit, for all its advanced technological capabilities, is not able to take a disembodied image of itself. Oh, yes, Spirit had been in that location just a few days prior to the image being taken. Because of this, special effects artists here on Earth were able to add a photorealistic model of the rover to indicate where it had been.
These synthetic images were created and released to the public just in time for the one martian year anniversary of the landings of Spirit and its twin, Opportunity. The images create a “you are there” virtual presence that pulls the viewer into some of the highlights of Spirit’s activity on Mars. And what a martian year of highlights it has been!
In January 2006 the two rovers will have been on Mars for two Earth years. Since one Mars year is just under two Earth years, the martian anniversary arrives first. The rovers have now experienced all the seasons of Mars. Built to last just three months, both rovers are well into extended missions far from their landing spots. Spirit continues to explore Gusav crater, but instead of from the crater floor where it started, Spirit now travels along the ridge of the Columbia Hills, an uplifted menagerie of rocks indicating a complicated history including the involvement of water.
Meanwhile, half a planet away, Opportunity has traveled to yet another crater, after exploring two other craters, discovering the sedimentary remains of an ancient body of water, and spotting a pristine meteorite in the martian desert sands.